Shinzo Abe´s lessons for Gordon Brown

23.07.07 Publication:

It is hard to follow a superstar. In that regard, Britain’s Gordon Brown and Japan’s Shinzo Abe share a common predicament. Like Mr Abe in October 2006, Gordon Brown started well last month when he took over Britain’s prime ministership from Tony Blair. He looks rather surprised to find that under his leadership his party has now overtaken the opposition Conservatives in the opinion polls for the first time in more than a year. He would be well advised, however, to study what has happened to Mr Abe since his own bright beginning last year.

            The difficult choice that a new prime minister has to make when following people as successful as Junichiro Koizumi and Tony Blair is to decide whether to try to emphasise how different they are or how similar. To succeed, politicians have to be vain and to believe that they are special, so the natural instinct is to stand for change, rather than continuity.

            That is what Mr Brown is doing. In his case, there is an added motive for differentiation, since Mr Blair became deeply unpopular in his last few years as prime minister, chiefly because of the Iraq war. But he needs to be careful. Iraq made Mr Blair unpopular, but he was still the most successful leader that Britain’s Labour Party has ever had. Mr Abe’s record shows what a mistake it can be to ignore the true foundations of your predecessor’s success.

            Despite the natural instinct to be different, it is still hard to understand why Mr Abe has governed in the way that he has. Mr Koizumi’s popularity was founded on his apparent attitude to economic reform and his desire to change the way in which the government worked. He was only partly successful in achieving such changes, but the Japanese public seemed to believe he was trying to do the right thing.

            Mr Koizumi’s marketing ability certainly helped. But a cardinal rule of advertising is that you cannot succeed for long by using a brilliant campaign to sell a bad product. Mr Koizumi succeeded because his product—changing the LDP, changing the government, changing the economy—worked sufficiently well to be believable.

            So that is what Mr Abe needed to continue doing. But he didn’t. His early success in improving relations with China and South Korea was perhaps too easy and too successful in boosting his popularity ratings. It was obvious that a change of prime minister offered the chance for a new beginning in Sino-Japanese relations; and the fact that the Olympics will be held in Beijing next year meant that the Chinese government had a good reason to be friendlier. This was an easy victory, one that may have fooled Mr Abe into thinking that being different was the right course to follow.

            Gordon Brown must take note. What has Mr Abe emphasised, in his desire to be different? Constitutional change and the teaching of patriotism in schools, in addition to that shift in Japan’s foreign policy. What has Mr Brown also been emphasising, in his months before becoming prime minister and now in his first month in the job? Constitutional change and the importance of teaching children about Britishness—plus a careful shift in Britain’s foreign policy to distance Mr Brown a little more from George W. Bush.

            The result for Mr Abe has been that the Japanese public have come to believe that his priorities are different from theirs: jobs, incomes, the quality of schools, the security of their pensions. If the pensions scandal had come to light during Mr Koizumi’s premiership it would also have been damaging for him, but at least Mr Koizumi established a credible reputation as a critic of the bureaucracy, an opponent of its complacency and its abuses. Mr Abe, by contrast, has been put on the defensive by the pensions scandal, and has been made to look as if he and his government are part of the problem that led to the loss of pension records rather than part of the solution to it.

            The upcoming election will tell us how badly this mistake has rebounded on Mr Abe, how big a penalty he will pay for failing to follow Mr Koizumi’s example and to paint himself as a reformer of the economy and the bureaucracy. Some people worry that a bad defeat and then a change of prime minister will mean that Japanese politics is back in the mire it descended into in the 1990s, with a series of short-lived prime ministers. They worry that this will damage Japan’s reputation abroad.

            That is surely wrong. If the election shows that Japanese voters are willing to punish the governing coalition for having failed to improve the economy and for failing to solve bureaucratic abuses, then that will be a positive sign, not a negative one. The more demanding that Japanese voters become, the better it will be for Japan’s future and for the country’s reputation abroad.

            Gordon Brown does not have to face an election in his first year in office, since Britain has an appallingly undemocratic upper house, unlike Japan’s elected one. But he will be tempted to call a surprise general election for the lower house if he retains his current lead in the opinion polls. If he is to win that election, he must learn from Mr Abe and from Mr Blair: constitutional reform and patriotic education do not bring popularity. More jobs, rising incomes and reform to public services do. For his sake, let us hope that Britain’s prime minister will be paying attention to Japan’s Upper House election.